(The following is an extract from the address delivered by Prof Carlo Fonseka at the launch of Edward Gunawardena’s book ‘Memorable Tidbits Including the Jaffna Library Fire’)
Ladies and gentlemen, the striking front cover of Edward Gunawardena’s Memoir proclaims that among the tidbits of his memorable, eventful life of some seventy-eight years is the story of the Jaffna library fire. It seems to be that calling the Jaffna Library fire a tidbit is a bit like calling Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth the Second, ‘miss’.
Edward was our man on the spot and he was an eye witness to the event. His clear, authoritative, comprehensive account of the Jaffna Library Fire bearing the title ‘Who Burnt the Jaffna Library?’ occupies thirty seven pages of this 390 page book. It comprises chapter 11 of the book.
I now think that it was a period when time was out of joint and Edward Gunawardena had been sent to set the historical record right. It was my delusion that it was Minister Gamini Dissanayake who burned the Jaffna Library. I became guilty of an act which shall remain a permanent source of regret in my mind. I need to use this platform and try and make amends for the injustice I inflicted on Mr. Gamini Dissanayake. But before that, let me say a few words about the Memoir of Edward Gunawardena.
The facts of the life and birth of my distinguished, scholarly policeman friend are very engaging to the younger generation as far from the social history of our country of that period. His very readable memoirs, buy the copy and read it!
Edward is, I would say, an out and out Josephian having entered the baby class of St Joseph’s College in January 1939 and leaving in December 1952 to enter the Arts Faculty of the University of Peradeniya. I joined St Joseph’s in 1947 and got to know him well in [his second year of school]. Then in university, he read and excelled in science and geography and graduated with honors in 1957. He recounts with the commendable modesty how he was chosen to the Police Department and entered the police training school in 1958.
After a very fruitful, productive and distinguished service, he took early retirement as a Senior DIG in 1987. Along the way he went on a Fulbright Scholarship to the Michigan State University and earned the Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice. As most of us here know, Edward is a very literate man and very straightforward. In 2001, he published a sprawling novel called ‘Blood and Cyanide’ on the theme of a life in a bilingual, multi religious, multi-cultural society. The novel deserves to gain much better note. In my judgment Edward Gunawardena is the most literate police officer Sri Lanka ever had. His memoirs give a very liberal, educated, cosmopolitan man’s insightful views on the interesting times we have lived in.
[But] let me come to the burning question in this book. My friend, author Dr Gunadasa Amarasekara really exhausted this subject and I have very little to add in way of providing details about it. Who burnt the Jaffna library? Edward has demonstrated beyond any matter of doubt that it was the LTTE that masterminded this crime against civilization. Why did he do that? Dr Amarasekara explained the doer’s motive but principally I think it was to prove to the world that the Sinhalese Buddhists are [bad] people. And the world believed the LTTE propaganda.
Not only the world, I too was one who believed that Mr Gamini Dissanayake was the villain. And during the 1994 presidential election campaign I crucified Mr Gamini Dissanayake for this crime which I believed he committed. After reading Edward’s account I now realize that I committed that [villainy] because I believed in the absurdity that it was Gamini Dissanayake who burnt the Jaffna Library or masterminded it. Let me spell out the way in which I came to excoriate Mr. Gamini Dissanayake on the election platform. In 1993, I read a poem on the burning of the Jaffna Library titled ‘Murder’. It was published in the Ceylon Medical Journal as a filler. I gathered that it was the English translation of a poem written by M.A . Nuhuman, who was a senior lecturer in Tamil in the University of Peradeniya. I was greatly moved and touched by the poem. Let me read it out to you.
Last night I had a dream
Lord Buddha was shot dead
By the Buddhists
Guardians of the …
His body lay drenched in blood
On the step of the Jaffna Library
Under the cover of darkness
Came the ministers
‘His name not in our list
Why did you kill him?’
They asked in anger
‘no sirs, no. there was no mistake.
Without bumping him off
It was impossible to harm even a fly.
Hide the corpse’
And the ministers vanished
Then they dragged the corpse into the library
They keep the books
Rare and valuable
90000 in all
They lit the fire
With the Silagowadha Sutraya
Thus the remains of the compassionate one
Were burnt to ashes
Along with the Dhammapada
I’ll just say I was so moved by this that I immediately embarked upon translation to Sinhala. And then came the presidential election campaign of 1994. I was a prominent speaker on Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s platform. It occurred to me that I might put that poem into my election speech. I really believed that Gamini Dissanayake was responsible for this. At the end of the speech which lasted about 20 or 30 minutes, where I talked about the Dhushanaya and Bhishanaya I finally come to this poem.
Then I read my own part, “Mey maha ghathanayat sambadhan wu Gamini Dissanayake Mahatha mey ratey janadhipathi nowewa.” [Let not Mr Gamini Dissanayake, who is associated with this assassination be elected as President of this country].
I read that thirty times on platforms. It depresses me and I need to make amends. I thank you Edward for documenting the truth with your mastery of criminal justice. And now I, all I can do is to tell the Dissanayake family [I knew Gamini Dissanayake, he was very polite and courteous to me] that I wronged him because I didn’t know. All I can do now is make amends for the gross injustice I inflicted upon him. So I ask Mrs. Shrima Dissanayake, Naveen Dissanayake and Dr Lanka Dissanayake to forgive me.
If he so desires, Naveen Dissanayake can be like Jesus Christ and say, “Father, forgive him for he did not know what he was doing.” COURTESY: CEYLON TODAY